Monday, June 02, 2008

Internet Ethics and Intellectual Property

by CORAX

CHA DAO is the work of many hands. One of my great pleasures, as blog owner and editor, is to facilitate the dissemination of that work, and to celebrate the contribution of each author. This celebratory work manifests itself in a variety of ways -- not just in the publication of each post on this blog, but also in the clickable links to other web pages that I try to add whenever I think these might be useful or interesting to our readers. I am also continually updating the list (in the right-hand column, below) of relevant blogs and other websites that I think our readers might find worth consulting.

CHA DAO casts its nets fairly widely. With the constant burgeoning of the Internet -- it's estimated that about 175,000 new blogs are begun every day -- that is no easy task, even if one restricts one's attention to a single topic, such as 'tea.' But we do our best. Naturally, in the course of such research, I see some extraordinary things. Sometimes they delight me. But not always.

It was with no small chagrin that I recently discovered that a blog known as 'Cha Bei' -- written by someone identifying himself as '謏約翰, A Scot living in California, working in China' -- has plagiarized an entire post from CHA DAO -- right down to the formatting. The 'Cha Bei' post was published on 3 May 2008; my own post, from which he has lifted the text, was last emended in July 2007.

He has changed a few words here and there -- my 'Miscellanea,' an unusual (Latin) term to be sure, has become 'Various Phrases,' and so forth; and of course he has taken out the paragraphs at the end where I thanked those who have helped me in the long task of compiling that list. Not surprisingly, he has also carefully snipped out the passage where I say: 'All suggestions for additions or corrections are most welcome; please send these to me [off-blog] at emailcorax {at} gmail {dot} com,' as well as my explicit signature of 'corax' at the end of the post -- these would have been all-too-clear attributions of authorship, which 謏約翰 was clearly not willing to accord me. But basically every single word of what was published in the 'Cha Bei' post of 3 May 2008 is -- virtually in its entirety -- my intellectual property. Indeed my cyber-fingerprints are all over the text: even my odd typographic quirks, such as using three hyphens (---) as a long dash to nest some entries under another entry, have been reproduced, keystroke by keystroke.

Now I want to be clear about a couple of things at the outset. First of all, this blogger does say that the material is taken 'from various sources' (in a parenthesis at the beginning), and that it is 'info I have in various Word/Excel files, compiled over the years' (in a comment at the end). But I submit that phrases like 'taken from various sources' and 'compiled over the years' much more naturally suggest that the work of conceiving and constructing the list was his, rather than mine.

This is made worse by the conversation he pursues in his 'comments' section. When one commenter refers to 'your effort' (emphasis added), 謏約翰 does nothing in his reply to clarify that the effort was not in fact his. And when another commenter thanks him for 'taking the time to put these up,' he replies, 'My pleasure!' -- again with no indication that it was someone else who actually 'took the time' over that list. All of this only contributes to the heavy implication that the work was done by 謏約翰 himself.

Certainly no reader who had not seen the original post at CHA DAO would ever, in a thousand years, have guessed that this material was copied and pasted, basically verbatim, from my original work (apparently from the source code of the CHA DAO page itself). There is no citation or attribution anywhere in 謏約翰's post. And it is not as if the text in question were a small snippet: the material pirated by 'Cha Bei' weighs in at 2673 words. In 11-point type, that would require a Microsoft Word document of seven pages. Moreover -- let us be clear about this too -- my original post was by no means a casual squib, the sort of thing that one dashes off in a few moments, or even a few hours: the list itself cost me many weeks of meticulous research, writing, fact-checking, and revision.

Another thing that needs clarifying: I made this list to be used by my readers. Indeed I say explicitly in the post that 'You are invited to copy and paste these terms into your own list or set of cards; the Chinese characters here are in a scalable font, so in a good word-processing program you should be able to enlarge or shrink them, as you please, for printing out. If your shopping plans are less ambitious, you can simply choose the words you're fairly sure you will need.' So it is not as if I had posted the list along with some version of 'Keep your hands off my text.' On the contrary. But it should not require a law degree, or a philosophical genius, to see that inviting a reader to make a copy of my list, in order to take it shopping with him or her, is not even in the same realm as inviting a blogger to pirate the whole thing, without acknowledgment or citation, and to post it in his own blog. If this is not intuitively obvious from the start, I invite my readers (and 謏約翰) to consider how they would feel if they found themselves subjected to such treatment.

The offense is made nastier, in my opinion, because 謏約翰 demonstrates elsewhere on his blog that he is fully cognizant of the importance of copyright and intellectual property: in his post of 14 May 2008, citing two passages from Roy Moxham's book Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, and Empire, he is careful to locate his citations by title, author, and page number. And he is willing to do this for the sake of two brief snippets of 62 and 86 words respectively -- not even a single page of text, all told. Is this because 謏約翰 thinks something is more 'officially published' if it exists in hard copy? Or simply because he is more afraid of legal prosecution by Moxham or his publisher, because the book must be purchased with money? It is fruitless to speculate on motives; the copyright and intellectual-property issues are identical, whether one is citing from a blog or from a print-format book. (Actually, they are not quite identical in comparing those brief Moxham citations with the theft of a huge chunk of text from CHA DAO: citing passages of less than 100 words -- with appropriate attribution -- might be defended as fair use, with the evident intention of illustrating what another author has written; the wholesale piracy of almost 2700 words, with no attribution whatsoever, is just plain stealing. And that would be so, whether the text in question were in print format, like Moxham's, or in digital format, like CHA DAO's.)

Over the years there has been endless discussion online about 'Netiquette,' i.e. Internet etiquette. One reason it has been endless is that people are constantly stepping on one another's toes, on the Internet as in physical life. Another reason, of course, is that not everyone shares identical notions of what is polite or kind.

But above and beyond questions of etiquette, I am here concerned with matters of ethics (and even legality) where intellectual property is concerned. In connection with that, for everyone's clarity and peace of mind, I would like to state CHA DAO's Official Policy on Intellectual Property. This is as follows:
The copyright for any material published by CHA DAO, be it verbal, visual, audial, or in any other format, belongs either to its author(s) or to CHA DAO itself. Citations from any material published by CHA DAO must be accompanied by explicit reference to the original post, either by a link to the blog's general URL (http://chadao.blogspot.com/) plus a reference to the exact title and date of the post, or by a link to the specific URL of the individual post in question. (Any CHA DAO material that remains the intellectual property of its author[s] may of course be reprinted or reproduced in other formats at the will of its author[s]; more explicit instructions for this may be obtained upon request from the editor.)
For easy reference henceforth, this is also posted now in the sidebar to the right, directly under the list of regular contributors.

A couple of other things, in closing: when 謏約翰 reads this new post -- and he has demonstrated very clearly that he reads CHA DAO -- I submit that the ethical thing for him to do would be, first, to write me a letter of apology, and second, to take down his piratic post immediately. (If and when this happens, I will add a happy postscript to this entry.)

And finally: although my original post has always been explicitly signed 'corax' at the end, and was already clearly stamped (by the blogger.com software) on the original date of posting with the attribution 'POSTED BY CORAX AT 3:06 P.M.,' I have now added the attribution 'by CORAX' at the head of the post (as also at the head of this one). I hope this will remove any possible doubt as to my feelings on the matter.

17 comments:

Silverneedles said...

Interesting post ...
because
when i read his post, also knew it here
i compared a couple lines and so when it seemed identical,
so...
i assumed HE WAS CORAX !!!!!!
:(
:(
>:(
in any case i had a similar problem with a post and also pictures, and added a copyright notice to my bloggie.

corax said...

> when i read his post,
> also knew it here
> i compared a couple
> lines and so when it seemed
> identical, so...
> i assumed HE WAS CORAX !!!!!!

no indeed. though [ironically] it appears we share the same first name. and i have some scottish blood, as he claims to have.

but you have a sharp eye, if you remarked on the textual similarities even before i said anything. good work!

> in any case i had a similar
> problem with a post and also
> pictures, and added a copyright
> notice to my bloggie.

i am sorry to hear you've been similarly plagued. this convinces me all the more that we need to be talking about this openly on the internet [and of course in person when we can]. good luck with your own intellectual-property situation.

corax said...

UPDATE: By 23:30 this evening, 謏約翰 had deleted the entire text that was stolen from CHA DAO, and replaced it with the following message: 'Content of this POST has been removed ....... lest it cause any additional angst. It would seem that I have pinched the "Jam out of someones doughnut" .... "Rest assured I'll look no more" To those that found the info of value .. sorry .. drop an e-mail and I'll send you a copy of my: word/excel/PPslides.'

Hardly a gracious apology, that. But it is clear acknowledgment that he had indeed stolen the material from CHA DAO. Nobody can stop him from distributing it privately, of course, with his own name on it; and that is what it seems he plans to do. But at least he has stopped posing on the Internet as the author of my material.

For the rest, he will have to answer to his own conscience -- if he has any. He goes on to plead, 'I have collected many volumes of tea related information .. the vast majority of it in analog form ..' Is it too much to hope that, as he distributes this to interested parties, he will resist the temptation to pretend he was the author of all that, too?

Warren said...

In Googling my own name, I found the following post (actually, the exact same post):
http://www.tea-supplier.com/white-tea-articles/

Apparently it's a tea supplier in Fuding, Fujian, which is ironic, since I'm quite close to Fuding.

Not only is it taken word for word, Corax's email address is at the bottom too!!

I understand Chinese companies want to do business, and have difficulties with translating Chinese to English; but come on, this is ridiculous - word for word? No editing at all? That's just plain lazy and careless.

Warren said...

Sorry, correct link should be here:
http://www.tea-supplier.com/category/tea-story/

Jo said...

Hi Corax,
I have actually read both cases of plagiarism of your original post and now I wonder why I haven't notified you about this. I guess, recognizing your original post from Cha Dao, I only scanned the article and didn't notice the missing attribution.
The same sort of content-theft has happened to me before with one of my blog articles and I know of at least one more case in the blogging tea world. When I contacted the publisher of the plagiarizing blog and asked for attribution, he was very cooperative and clearly marked the content as not his own creation and linked back to my original post.

Your post got me started thinking about the copyright issues of blog entries. I believe that most of us would be happy to see our content cited on other web pages, as long as the source is properly referenced and/or treated as a visually obvious quote.
One solution, that might be legally viable, would be to copyright the content under a Creative Commons license. This way, you still have control over the usage of your content (ensure attribution, prevent or allow commercial use, etc.) while allowing the freedom of distribution.
I wonder what everyone else thinks about that.

Jo said...

One more thing, don't give him credit (or rather link currency) by directly linking to his post.
If you want others to be able to have a look at it, just type out the URL rather than creating a link. You don't want to "endorse" his content from a search engine's point of view, do you?

Anonymous said...

Corax,

Just a comment or observation on the problem of plagiarism on the web.

In exploring the internet for information on the history of tea, I have often come upon the same writing numerous times on different websites. The design, format, font, and other aspects of the text are different, but the content is copied verbatim and there is no citation and therefore impossible to ascertain the original source. The most egregious trespasses regularly occur on commercial sites.

Steve.

corax said...

[warren] Not only is it taken word for word, Corax's email address is at the bottom too!!

[corax] warren, thanks for the heads-up on this. it's discouraging and flattering at the same time. at least they didn't attempt to remove all traces of my authorship as the other blogger did. who knows, this might be their way of accounting for what they've done -- 'at least we gave you attribution!' -- though of course it's not the way internet attribution should be done, by a long shot ... and they are trying to make money on my copy. that's the bottom line in this case.

[steve] The most egregious trespasses regularly occur on commercial sites.

[corax] that's exactly right. and i think this is the case for the reason i mentioned above: they don't want to spend the time or money paying for good copy, and this is ripe for the plucking, right on the internet ...

[jo] recognizing your original post from Cha Dao, I only scanned the article and didn't notice the missing attribution.

[corax] **sigh** ... same as silverneedles! i wonder how many of this guy's readers made a similar inference -- logical enough under the circumstances. [btw i am sorry to hear that you, like silverneedles, have also had this content-theft experience. as i said, i think it's well worth our talking about it as much as we can ... and exploring options.]

[jo] I believe that most of us would be happy to see our content cited on other web pages, as long as the source is properly referenced and/or treated as a visually obvious quote.

[corax] absolutely. why not?

[jo] One solution, that might be legally viable, would be to copyright the content under a Creative Commons license. This way, you still have control over the usage of your content (ensure attribution, prevent or allow commercial use, etc.) while allowing the freedom of distribution.

[corax] this is a really interesting idea, and one that is still very under-explored. worth our discussing more.

Anonymous said...

Kind crow—I am sad to learn this happened to you. As you well know, much the same happened to me, too. It rather takes your breath away when theft like this occurs. I think at the base of such plagiarism is a greediness, a selfishness, an impulse in the mind of the about-to-become-a-plagiarist that hisses, “This is excellently written, and I want it. I want the benefit of having it associated with me. I want the aura of its eloquence without the decades of labor required to write at this level.” When I saw my own work lifted whole-cloth, it stunned me. I actually felt dizzy. What would it have cost this Scot person to have simply praised your work as the valuable resource it is and then to have linked to it? The added insult of the jelly and donut business simply places the thief at a level that I find contemptible. If this Scot person worked hard to build some beautiful artifact, and a thief were to steal it and assume the role of its creator, then Scot would be outraged. But Scot is more than happy to do unto others what would be unacceptable if done unto him. And when taken to task, he tosses to the ground a banana peel of failed repartee upon which he quickly slips and so falls on his ass. Typical. Thanks for bringing this to light. But now, wise raven, move forward. Know that if what you wrote was without merit, thieves would not steal it away. As always, Best to you, ~grasshopper

corax said...

[grasshopper] I think at the base of such plagiarism is a greediness, a selfishness, an impulse in the mind of the about-to-become-a-plagiarist that hisses, “This is excellently written, and I want it. I want the benefit of having it associated with me. I want the aura of its eloquence without the decades of labor required to write at this level.”

[corax] as usual, you have hit the nail on the head here. i'm sure that's exactly the motivation.

[GH] When I saw my own work lifted whole-cloth, it stunned me. I actually felt dizzy.

[corax] i remember. and you deserved to be better treated than that. and -- alas -- in a way this new theft was a theft from *you*, as well, inasmuch as the very idea for the list came to me [in part] from your esteemed self. part of my indignation was on behalf of my friends who had helped me so generously when i was writing it.

[GH] Know that if what you wrote was without merit, thieves would not steal it away.

[corax] good grasshopper, you are kindness itself. thanks for your caring words, as for your astute observations. you do have a way of striking to the heart of things. may i someday attain to a fraction of your own eloquence.

~ Phyll said...

Shameless of him. Looks like he's replaced the entire stolen text with a table of tea names.

corax said...

[phyll] Shameless of him. Looks like he's replaced the entire stolen text with a table of tea names.

[corax] hey phyll! long time no see! welcome back.

yes, even his replacement post [with snarky 'apology'] is now gone entirely. this table of tea-terms is indicative of the level of scholarship entailed, i'm afraid -- for example, da hong pao is translated as 'big red rope.' i've only seen that particular typo on labels of DHP packed by wing hop fung, and they're in california as 謏約翰 is, so i'm assuming he just mindlessly cribbed the 'translation' from their misprint.

of course all of us make typos at one point or another. [and 'rope' for 'robe' is understandable enough when one's native language is not english, as i assume the wing hop fung labeler's is not.] even something like 謏約翰's spelling 'melon' as 'mellon' is pretty harmless, but one worries when one finds something like 'big red rope' in a reference chart. it shows, among other things, that he's not even aware of the legend behind this phenomenal tea. all told, it does not inspire confidence in the rest of his collection of tea-data ...

now: what do you bet those typos get corrected sometime soon? as our 謏約翰 manifestly does read CHA DAO assiduously. [at least you can't fault his taste in tea-blog reading ....] in any case, i have a screen cap of today's version of that chart, for comparison ... though you may rest assured that i will give full and proper attribution, if and when i display it! :)

incidentally, paul krugman of the NY times had an interesting and unsettling column today on the future of IP. looks like we're all signs of the times, one way or another.

Warren said...

My corvid friend, do not be disheartened. All is not lost - (literally speaking). Perhaps this Scot was following the ancient Chinese practice where scholars would copy, and re-copy by hand ancient scrolls. And some of these books would even be added - in their entirety - into a larger volume, of say the history of a particular area. And some tea books would be compiled together in the aggregatus.

It is because of this copying and constant re-copying that many tea Classics still survive today - or at least snippets of them survive where they were quoted in other tea classics. More than a few ancient tea books have already been lost. And we may never know what they contained.

But you can take heart, your posts, our posts will still live on - even if blogger's servers were to somehow suddenly explode.

It is just that others are perhaps a little too corvid-envious. But these others will do us the service of copying our words - and you can be sure our very words of dear tea will survive hundreds of years from now.

Take heart my friend, the world is still mostly corvid-friendly.

corax said...

[warren] Take heart my friend, the world is still mostly corvid-friendly.

[corax] caws for rejoicing! :)

thank you for those heartening words, warren, and also for your very perceptive observation about the ancient tea classics. what you say is equally true about the ancient greek and latin classics, and probably indeed about ancient texts from all times and places. it's worth reminding ourselves [as you do here] that our notions of IP and copyright are quite modern -- as with so many other aspects of 'civilization,' they are really very recent attempts on the part of the human race to make the globe a more civilized [read: humane, caring, dignified] place to live, even if/as it becomes more densely populated by the day.

i especially like your idea, warren, of our words finding a way to survive over hundreds of years. the journey through time was perilous enough for physical media like papyrus and vellum; i wonder how robust the kilobyte will prove, as year pours into year?

but yes, wouldn't it be fun if, 800 years from now, someone would find [and somehow be able to read] a scrap, or more, of your writings, or mine? i love that thought. it may be that, all unwitting, our scottish pal has done us a favor in that regard. when you send a text out into cyberspace, you never know where it will find its way to!

Anonymous said...

(If it not too late to re-direct the appreciation...)

Thanks for taking the time to put this up - a great resource.

I hope you will continue and not be dispirited.

Lethargus

corax said...

> (If it not too late
> to re-direct the
> appreciation...)
>
> Thanks for taking the time
> to put this up - a great
> resource.

lethargus, you are most welcome! it is my pleasure. and in fact i hope to continue to augment it and to correct any errors [of omission or commission] that remain.

> I hope you will continue
> and not be dispirited.

many thanks for your kind wishes. the truth is, i'm more committed than ever to this enterprise. and it's very gratifying to know that readers [such as you] find CHA DAO a worthwhile resource.